Archive for February, 2012

Cogito: John Branch

February 28, 2012

Tolstoy 2020

By John Branch

Russian SF—you can take that either as science fiction or speculative fiction—has been no stranger to its uses for the exploration of social, political, and human themes. (This is true enough in other countries that it can be expected everywhere, leaving one to wonder why American SF has so often limited itself to technological and fantasy purposes.) Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920) critiqued rational idealism in politics as it turns absolutist; the book influenced George Orwell in the writing of 1984. The Strugatsky brothers, writing from 1959 to 1989, began with romantic, even utopian social visions, grew progressively satiric (The Second Martian Invasion is a Swiftian masterpiece) or doubtful, and finally became rather bleak and gloomy. The great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky devoted two of his seven films (Solaris and Stalker) to SF material—one of them drawing on text from the Strugatskys—that became, in his hands, poetic, meditative, deeply concerned with what can most easily be called (flat as it may sound) the human condition.

Within minutes, the 2011 Russian film Target (directed by Alexander Zeldovich, and co-written with Vladimir Sorokin) takes its place in that tradition, suggesting a future world, a social critique, and a Tolstoyan theme. The location is Moscow, 2020; technology, industry, and globalization have all advanced, with videophones, goggles that reveal characteristics of the subjects in view, and some hair-raising scenes taking place on a Guanjou-to-Paris superhighway dominated by international freight.

The main characters pretty much all count as elites, the men among them wielding great power, wealth, and influence from their positions in government, bureaucracy, or media; notes of corruption and demagoguery are sounded early in the film. As for Tolstoy: the first character we meet, Viktor, head of the Natural Resources Ministry, sounds the theme in what he calls an old saying that he recites to someone interviewing him for a book. It reverses and inverts the opening of Anna Karenina in proposing that “Miserable people are all alike…” Tolstoy wrote that it’s happy families that are all alike; clearly, individualism has supplanted families in Viktor’s world, and what each person wants is happiness in his own way. No one we meet has children, and few of them are even married. Though in our view they should want for nothing, none of these characters is satisfied.

As Target progresses, we find more futurism, more of the critique, and more reminders of Anna Karenina. There’s also a moment that calls to mind Tolstoy’s late rejection of worldliness. And I found reminders of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker as well. As in Stalker, this film relies on something in a remote location that can bestow a gift on those few capable of reaching it; here, it’s called the target, hence the title. That’s also true of Solaris, and like Solaris, this film leaves us with an ironic image (revealed in both cases via a surprising and majestic aerial pullback shot) of one person among the many characters who has found a means of accommodating that gift.

I was somewhat unsure how to take the film’s most obvious moral note, the good-versus-evil theme explicitly discussed by Viktor as a discovery he made by using the special goggles. But it was decidedly clear that he was taken to be crazy for talking about it. I could see why New York Times critic A. O. Scott, in a recent mention of the film, called it “hallucinatory” and “lavishly and mind-blowingly strange,” though to me the only hallucinatory sequence looked more like Fellini Satyricon, and much of what may have appeared strange to Scott was just Russian to me: physical and emotional violence, a taste for cruelty turned erotic and mostly against the self (Viktor’s wife has twisted desires), and what I took to be a form of spiritual yearning. The icon and the axe, the twin poles of James Billington’s study of Russia, are both present. And Target’s leisurely narrative flow, which occasionally left me wondering where it was going, is true to an important element of unlimited time in the story. A Web page gives away what that’s about, but I won’t.

Target was one of 32 films presented in the annual Film Comment Selects series. It’s an offering of the Film Society of Lincoln Center that gives New York a look at notable recent work from the international festival circuit (Target won attention at Berlin last year), some upcoming or recent domestic releases (Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret was one of these), and some revivals. I wasn’t aware of the series before; now I’m fascinated, and grateful as well. This film, for one, seems otherwise unlikely to be shown in America. If our view of what SF means weren’t so parochial, that might be different. (March 1, 3pm, Walter Reade Theater). Follow John Branch on

Apollo’s Girl

February 25, 2012


With a bow in the general direction of L.A., it’s always fun to look back at the NYFF to see how many of its entries are cinematic pointers to Oscar’s final cuts. Call it the Nostradamus effect…

With no jet lag, it’s been the most interesting and least expensive grand tour around since 1962: think 2009’s White Ribbon (Germany) and Precious. And 2010’s Social Network and Of Gods and Men (France) Well, the 2011 slate was no exception. We got The Artist (US/France), A Separation (Iran), and some memorable multi-nationals. 

The Artist had scored at Cannes; since word on the festival circuit travels quickly, the press screening was packed, the air crackled. Afterwards, the Q & A featured both producer and director, and six cast members—all visibly pumped. One of the initial queries, from a senior critic, began with ”Before I ask a question, let me thank you for bringing us the best film at the festival!” It was a first, and got a huge round of applause. All subsequent hype aside, is there anybody who doesn’t actually love this film? Apart from its many pleasures, it’s got that tap dancing and a dog (yes, named Uggie). Director/writer Hazanavicius knew exactly the film he wanted to make, and he had all the technical skill necessary to make it. And to get, and keep, his cast and crew on the same page. Trust the Weinstein company to know what to do with it. Consider it done. To a turn.


A Separation. Penetrating, heartbreaking—and universal. The unresolvable conflicts between a husband and wife deeply in love, yet torn apart by their separate needs. Even the minor characters are artfully drawn, their points of view and intersections made clear. The lady-or-the-tiger ending really does damage where you least want it to.

There were, as always, many excellent films and many surprises from every corner of the world, long and short, deep and quirky, thought-provoking and entertaining, but always marked by their perspective on what life is like somewhere else, and what’s being made there that mirrors it.

Lars von Trier was back with Melancholia, exonerating himself from last years Antichrist, but not, apparently from his bad press and bad taste at Cannes.

Pedro Almodovar was back, too, with The Skin I Live In. A dark, complex scenario, with great performances from Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya (who can wear a bodysuit better than anyone), it was both creepy and fascinating, and pulled together as only Almodovar could possibly do it. Brilliantly.

The Descendants. This was a rich, fascinating story, set in Hawaii. Technically, part of the United States, but so different in its culture and heritage. If only it had been made by, say, Peter Weir, or a European, it would have been even richer. Much as I’ve enjoyed George Clooney in Up in the Air, (see  December, 2009 post), Michael Clayton, and especially in Syriana, I was not convinced by Alexander Payne that Clooney (or Beau Bridges) were fourth-generation Hawaiian royalty. A less Hollywood-y spotlight would have illuminated its character-driven plot to advantage. Still, it’s a contender, has that rich story, and some really serious scenery.

      Le Havre (Finland/France/) A lovely, retrospective look at French films of the 1930s. Think l’Atalante, Zero de Conduite, Jean Gabin. And Aki Kaurismaki really pulled off its nostalgic look at today’s characters pretending to be in the long-ago.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Slow and droll, in the same emotional key as Romania’s Police, Adjective (see October 6, 2009 post). Its deliberate pace gave us plenty of time to contemplate the vistas and small-town mindset of today’s (or really yesterday’s) Turkey, and relish the delicious flaws and virtues revealed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s script and sly direction.

The Turin Horse. Everyone has hailed this as a masterpiece. But I found it increasingly unbearable, and left after the first hour. My heart went out to the horse, and to the actors, who had to bear the wind, the rain, the cold, and a lot of hot potatoes. Did well at last year’s Berlinale, but didn’t make the final cut for this year’s Oscars.

This is Not a Film  Apparently the Iranians simply cannot make a bad film. And this one really is a masterpiece. It’s cinematic stone soup, made in despair by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been forbidden to make any more movies for 20 years and has lived under house arrest for more than six; it’s as deep as it is fiendishly clever. Simply a day in his life (recorded by a filmmaker friend) as he talks into the camera, deals with his neighbors, and reproaches his iguana (yes, named Iggie), revealing his pain at being cut off from what he does best and cannot do. There are some moments of black comedy, but its scope and imagination, and Panahi’s strength are breathtaking. At film forum from February 29 – March 13; don’t miss it!

Well, you get the idea. And, if you’re smart, you’ll get tickets as far in advance as possible for the 2012 edition of NYFF. It’s the festival’s 50th anniversary, and Richard Peña’s 25th (and final) season as the festival’s director. Expect to be astonished with the slate, especially since there are now three more theaters for screening the mix.

Meantime, my heart’s pinned on Uggie for Sunday night.

Cogito: John Branch

February 6, 2012

On Seeing and Hearing Gustav Leonhardt:

The Lesson of a Master

Two weeks after the fact, I discovered that harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt had died on January 16. I saw him perform once, in Dallas, Texas, with a girlfriend who was a harpsichordist and a devotee of his. I believe the program included J. S. Bach and François Couperin.

Exactly what he played escapes me now; how he played stays with me. He sat before his instrument bolt upright, and beyond the dance of his fingers over the keys he remained stock still while playing. He gave me the sense of total absorption in his task, the elimination of everything superfluous, the merging of player and instrument so that the music appeared to flow through him and the harpsichord, as if coming from somewhere else. Seeing him gave me the idea of writing something on the Zen of performance in music and theater. (I never did attempt that, judging it to be beyond my abilities and possibly an overused concept even then, in the late 70s.)

One doesn’t play Bach, or much of anything else, without complexities of understanding and experience, of intellect as well as emotion, but one needn’t show a smidgen of that, as I realized for what felt like the first time during that performance. Early on, Leonhardt removed from his work all the display, and a good deal more too, in an effort to clear away the clutter of post-Baroque practices, especially those of Romanticism, and return to a style more pure and pristine. We didn’t see him feeling the music, in other words, as one often does when seeing a keyboard performer. He simply shared it with us. One may grasp such things from a recording, but not as fully. Witnessing him play in an auditorium, where he had nothing to show us, he nonetheless visibly demonstrated something.

It occurs to me that Leonhardt would make a good dance-club DJ, as long as he was the kind—which is not the only kind nowadays—who worked apart from the dance floor rather than in front of it. The effects he created were everything, and how he looked while doing it was never the point

Of his roles in restoring the harpsichord to a more prominent concert role and in pioneering the early-music movement, I can say little. Readers can find ample testimony to that elsewhere online.

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